In every situation in life, there's always a way to make a tit of yourself
As students, it’s true, most of our dining experiences cannot really be filed under the category of “fine”. In most cases “just about edible, if you scrape off the burnt bits and ignore the fact that it went out of date last week and has started growing green fur” is probably more appropriate.
If we do get a shot at something slightly more upmarket than a jacket potato or even a fish finger sandwich if we’re splashing out, then it is usually one of two scenarios. It is either someone’s birthday, and therefore all of their friends have attempted to mortgage their own kidneys on wonga.com in order to celebrate. Or it is accompanied, and therefore paid for, by parents. Although I have to admit, when the latter is true, we are usually the scruffy family in the corner sniggering at all the other patrons who are slightly too posh to be able to pour their own wine, or unfold their own napkins. Often being regarded with some degree of distaste by the terribly smart waiters with their perfectly coiffed moustaches as we contentedly sup our carafe of tap water, which has somewhat miraculously been delivered to our table despite the fact that we may have accidentally tried to order a cravat or possibly a giraffe of water, tap water.
So, should you find yourself abandoning your own feeble attempts to conjure something a little more advanced than a jam sandwich and venturing out to a purveyor of haute cuisine and fine wines, the Awkward Guide has a few tips to help you avoid any toe-curling, bottom-clenching situations over the cheese soufflé.
1. The first is really a matter of etymology. The term “al dente” may come from the Italian meaning “to the tooth”, it may sound terribly sophisticated and make us think ‘oh it’s written in a foreign language, it must be good/posh/more expensive/have something to do with snails’. But we all know that the reality is something a little different. While it is, no doubt, a perfectly legitimate phrase in Italy, you can bet your bottom dollar that in any other country “al dente” is actually just impatience cunningly disguised as refinement. We all know that if we ever manage to not boil our fusilli to within an inch of its life then we were sadly not aspiring to the desired texture for cooked pasta demanded by good Italian cooking. We were simply admitting this one statement to be true: ‘I was slightly too hungry/lazy to wait the full 10 minutes that the packaging prescribes for my pasta to have cooked properly’.
2. Avoid fish mousse. In every situation in life, avoid fish mousse. Fish mousse is, quite frankly, an abomination and I am fundamentally opposed to it on almost every level. On a menu, the word “mousse” should only ever be preceded by words such as ‘chocolate’ or ‘lemon’ or, at a push, if you’re feeling particularly exotic, ‘peach’. It should not, I repeat, NOT be preceded by the word ‘salmon’. Whoever invented the concept of whipping fish and cream together, aside from being hastily reported to the RSPCA or the WWF or whoever is in charge of fish welfare, should really have their head examined and possibly stand trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity.
3. Also avoid pâté. In fact, avoid anything along the lines of pâté, terrine, or something I only just discovered whilst looking up terrine that is, hilariously, called head cheese. This is a similar situation to fish mousse. These dishes represent the drastic misconception that meat products can be improved by blending them and getting jelly involved. In most other situations in life, getting jelly involved is a tremendously good idea. Not, however, when it comes to the puréed internal organs of animals. In this instance, both jelly and the unsuspecting diner should stay well away.
4. Beware the things floating in your soup. We recently went on holiday to Austria and, on the whole, apart from being served fish mousse, the food in the hotel restaurant was lovely. There was, however, one area which generated quite considerable intrigue and mild concern, and this was the soup. Throughout the week we all discovered some of the most extraordinary things that we had never expected, nor particularly wanted, to find floating in our bowls of soup. Amongst the things we found in, on, and ominously swimming around our soup were the following:
– Lard croutons. Yes, you heard me, LARD croutons. Admittedly, this did turn out to be a simple case of mistranslation and the lard croutons turned out, in fact, to be bits of bacon. But still.
– Strips of spinach pancake.
– Cream. A fairly normal thing to find on soup, you might argue, but not when it is the sort that you squirt out of those aerosol cans onto strawberries/lemon meringue pies/adventurous lovers.
– A single, slightly forlorn looking piece of ravioli.
– Two small duck liver sandwiches. Now, I’m perfectly accustomed to the idea of sandwiches WITH soup. This is a fine and delicious meal option. Sandwiches IN soup is a little more risqué, especially when those sandwiches contain the liver of a duck.
So, all in all, the moral of this particular story is always take heed of what is floating in your soup, because it may be something surprising, and not in a good way.
5. The matter of the bill. This tends to be simple if dining with family because, hopefully, a kindly parent will generously foot the bill. But the whole thing becomes about as simple as long division if you’re eating out with friends. In fact, it becomes exactly as simple as long division and everyone quickly whips out the calculators on their phones in order to work out precisely what they owe. Because we may be spending 4 years of our lives learning how to be jolly clever chaps, but basic, everyday, bog-standard arithmetic is utterly beyond us. And once everyone has handed over their share, carefully counted out in change and coppers from the darkest depths of handbags, or hailed by groans as one-by-one everyone asks for some change because they only have a 20, you will realise that one of two things has happened. Either you are drastically short of the full amount you owe the establishment and no-one can work out why because everyone has paid their exact share. Or you have far too much and no-one can work out why because no-one seems to require any change (admittedly this is not so common). Whichever has happened, the poor person who had the misfortune to sit nearest to the bill and therefore be assigned the task of counting the money will be faced with a problem so befuddling it seems to be the eating-out equivalent of bringing peace to the middle east.
So if you decide to eat out at a reputable food-vending establishment then do enjoy it, it may not happen often. But do also avoid any food product which you suspect may be committing a crime against your poor senses, generally avoid anything that floats, or for that matter sinks, in your soup, and if eating in a group, it would be tremendously helpful if one of your group had a Harvard M.B.A or a diploma in international relations. Oh, and for the love of all that’s holy, try not to fart in the middle of a fancy restaurant, which is totally not something that has happened to any member of my family. Honest.
The Awkward Guide accepts no responsibility for adverse reactions to the implementation of advice supplied herein. Side-effects can include: smug laughter, mild disdain, and temporary irritation.